Ratboys have been forced off the road, but they’re still on the rails | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Ratboys have been forced off the road, but they’re still on the rails 

The Chicago indie rockers recently released their best album yet, and though they can’t tour, they’re finding ways to stay connected to their fans.

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Ratboys, from left to right: Dave Sagan, Julia Steiner, Sean Neumann, and Marcus Nuccio - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • Ratboys, from left to right: Dave Sagan, Julia Steiner, Sean Neumann, and Marcus Nuccio
  • Courtesy the artist

Update on Monday, May 4: Ratboys will appear on a special Zoom episode of Chic-a-Go-Go on Friday, May 15, at 6 PM. RSVP to host Mia Park at mia@miapark.com to receive an invitation 15 minutes before start time.

On February 28, Chicago band Ratboys celebrated the release of their third album, Printer's Devil, by playing to a sold-out crowd at Lincoln Hall. The next night, they headlined a second sold-out show, this time at the Hideout. Ratboys had been working toward those gigs for nearly ten years, ever since the group's founders—vocalist-guitarist Julia Steiner and guitarist Dave Sagan—started the band in a Notre Dame dorm room after meeting at freshman orientation in 2010.

Printer's Devil is an ambitious leap into wide-reaching indie rock. It's by far the best Ratboys album to date, and it's also the first to feature the lineup that's become their regular live band: bassist Sean Neumann has been aboard since early 2017, and drummer Marcus Nuccio has been in and out since later that same year (sharing the job with Ian Paine-Jesam, who also appears on Printer's Devil). Steiner and Sagan started out as a duo, playing quiet tunes that leaned toward Americana, but they've been recruiting rhythm-section players for shows and sessions since moving to Chicago in 2015. After years of evolution, they're now a full-fledged four-piece.

The release of Printer's Devil was also supposed to provide the occasion for another big step in Ratboys' development: their first tour as a headliner. They'd put together an ambitious plan. A couple weeks after their celebratory hometown shows, they'd head to South by Southwest, then tour the western U.S. for three weeks, returning to Chicago on April 12. While Nuccio toured Japan for two weeks with one of his other bands, Pet Symmetry, Steiner and Sagan would play three duo Ratboys shows opening for Wilco in the southeast. Then the full band would reconvene in Chicago to begin the east-coast leg of their tour, kicking off April 29 in Pontiac, Michigan, and concluding May 16 in Saint Louis. After a brief breather, they'd head to Europe for three weeks.

"It was really exciting, because we had never done a headlining tour," Steiner says. "We'd done DIY tours, but those don't have as much pressure or as much weight behind you. This was a new experience for us. And we were surprised—it looked like a lot of the shows were selling really well."

Because SXSW was the first domino to fall, canceled due to COVID-19 on March 6, Ratboys never even left home. And by March 21, everything else had also been called off or postponed: all 29 of their stateside headlining shows, their Wilco dates, their European tour, and their other festival appearances (Treefort Music Fest in Boise, Idaho, and Waking Windows in Winooski, Vermont).

"Everything regarding this whole situation happened in small steps," Nuccio says. "That week, I remember there being whispers that SXSW was getting canceled, and I remember thinking, 'This might be real. This might be a big deal.'"

Thousands of musicians plan springtime tours around SXSW, and Ratboys have turned the trip to Austin into an annual rite. "The past four years we've gone down to SXSW," Neumann says. "I keep telling Julia that I feel so weird right now, because the past four years I've experienced springtime by going down to South By. That's been the change in season: we go from Chicago to Austin, Texas, where it's warmer, and it literally turns from winter to spring. To not have that is throwing me off a little bit."

Ratboys managed to hold onto hope for their pending tour for a few more days—most of their shows were in venues that held 300 to 500 people, and at that point, cancellations in America were still mostly restricted to bigger events.

"March 11 we did an AMA on Reddit, and we were telling people we'll definitely be playing the rest of the shows, don't worry," Steiner says. "And then that night the NBA canceled its season, Trump held a White House press conference, Tom Hanks got coronavirus. It changed so quickly, and it was so disorienting. You'd think we'd be used to feeling disoriented, being on the road, but this was a whole new ball game for everyone."

The following day, Live Nation announced the postponement of all events scheduled for March, and soon literally everyone else followed suit.

"I thought our shows were going to be fine, because at that point it was gatherings of 1,000 people," Nuccio says. "Then the next day was 500—the next day was 100."

"It's weird, because we were all so diligent about preparing to go on tour," Steiner says. "Physically, mentally, I was psyching myself up for this for months. There's such a specific mindset you have when you're on tour, to grind every day. It's very fun, there's a lot of room for spontaneity, but at the same time it's very grueling."

Bands often see touring as a gratifying payoff for the months or years they've spent writing, recording, and releasing a new album. The material on Printer's Devil dates back to demo sessions Steiner and Sagan conducted in December 2017. Between the May 2017 release of Ratboys' second album, GN, and the recording of Printer's Devil, the band played to larger and larger audiences, opening tours for the likes of Diet Cig, Vundabar, Foxing, and Soccer Mommy. Their tour with Toronto band Pup included back-to-back sold-out shows at Metro.

Ratboys had certainly attracted a loyal fan base with GN and their 2015 debut, AOID, but by 2018 the growing sentiment in the emo and indie-rock communities was that they deserved to be recognized as one of the best live bands in the scene. In March of that year, Pittsburgh-based editor Eli Enis, one of several contributing to online music magazine the Alternative, wrote a piece titled "Ratboys Are Such a Good Fucking Band." Steiner and Sagan had already made their songwriting prowess clear on record, but more and more people were seeing those tunes onstage, where they were bigger, louder, and more exciting thanks to Nuccio's punk-rooted drumming and the spontaneity in Sagan's masterful guitar playing.

The publicity campaign for Printer's Devil began in November 2019 with the release of the video for lead single "Alien With a Sleep Mask On." Directed by Chicago duo Coool, aka John TerEick and Jake Nokovic, it casts Steiner as an astronaut floating through space and Sagan as the leader of a team of scientists trying to rescue her. Helped along by the song's power-pop charm and sing-along chorus, the video attracted coverage from Stereogum and the Grey Estates, among other outlets.

In January the band followed up with the video for "I Go Out at Night," another Coool production. Styled like a campy black-and-white 50s-style horror flick, it depicts the four members of Ratboys as trick-or-treaters encountering a string of spooks, including a scary old witch and a werewolf—or rather the shadow of a werewolf, which turns out to be cast by a cute little pup (a cameo appearance by my dog Chloe the Pug, who’d gotten to know Ratboys after I invited Steiner on my podcast, Better Yet, in 2016). "I just had a thought: What if I never came home?" sings Steiner, almost whispering along to the meditative tune's jangly guitars. "I'd go and get a job uninstalling 90s pay phones."

Anticipation for Printer's Devil was building on indie-rock Twitter. Between the instant dopamine jolt of "Alien With a Sleep Mask On," the celestial daydreams evoked by "I Go Out at Night," and the rambunctious, seesawing riff of the third single, the heartfelt "Anj," the album promised to have enough variety to stand up to constant listening.

When Ratboys released Printer's Devil on February 28, ringing endorsements came from the likes of Pitchfork, the Alternative, and Paste. The latter not only published a positive review but also ranked Ratboys number one in a listicle titled "Bernie Sanders Thanking Bands for Their Music, Ranked." Steiner and Sagan had performed an acoustic set at the senator's campaign rally in Davenport, Iowa, on January 11, and when Sanders took the stage, he acknowledged them, adding a superfluous "the" and hesitating a little before saying "Ratboys" in his Bernie Sanders voice: "Let me thank the, uh, Ratboys for their music."

The new album also got fans looking forward to Ratboys' upcoming tour. "The week after the album came out, I was excited 'cause I hadn't been checking the ticket sales super often, and some of the cities were still up in the air—but the bigger ones like Seattle and LA, a lot of tickets were sold," Steiner says. "We were pleasantly surprised and excited and confident to go, because we knew people were going to be there."

The cancellation of a lengthy tour involves more than an emotional letdown, of course. Ratboys had secured guarantees ranging from $350 to $750 for most of their shows, and in larger markets such as New York and Los Angeles, the payouts reached $2,000. At more than 90 percent of their dates, the band could've made more than that guarantee—their contracts promised them a percentage of the gross box-office revenue, if that number were larger. Each cancellation results in lost income for the band and the venue, of course, and often for Ratboys' booking agency, High Road Touring (which set up the U.S. tour and the shows with Wilco). The agency doesn't charge up front—instead it gets a 10 percent cut of whatever the band gets paid, which means it'll have to wait till the shows are rescheduled before it sees any money.

Steiner spent four months booking the European tour herself, and though Ratboys didn't expect to do better than break even overseas, they were looking forward to that trip too—they'd enjoyed touring Europe with Dowsing in 2016 and Wild Pink in 2018. Thankfully the band were able to get a refund of the $3,500 they'd spent on airfare. Nuccio's tour of Japan with Pet Symmetry was canceled as well.

Touring is a doubly important source of revenue for many bands, because they also sell the majority of their records and other merchandise on the road. Ratboys have established a goal of $250 per show for merch sales, and because they've set that number low enough for smaller markets, they often double or triple it in the bigger ones. They pay 100 percent of the up-front costs for their T-shirts, sweatshirts, and baseball caps, and for this tour's initial order that came to almost $5,000 (though Ratboys planned to restock on the road). All their merch is priced to ensure a profit per item of $11 to $14. T-shirts sell for $20 apiece, for instance, and cost $6 to $9 to print; sweatshirts cost more than $16 each and sell for $30.

Ratboys aren't yet making much money from CDs, tapes, and vinyl of Printer's Devil, because their label, Topshelf Records, wants to recoup its expenses—the recording advance, the video budgets, the cost of the pressings, the PR bill for the album cycle, and so on—before it starts paying royalties to the band. For now Topshelf is keeping revenue from online sales, streaming, and sales through Ratboys' distributor, Redeye Worldwide. The band can pocket the profit from copies they sell hand to hand, and after the first 100 (which the label gives them free) they pay for them up front at cost. Right now they're sitting on about 200 LPs, having sold perhaps 50 so far. Ratboys know they'll be in the black with Topshelf eventually, but it probably would've taken 12 to 18 months without a pandemic. It'll take even longer if they can't tour.

  • Previous Ratboys albums GN (2017) and AOID (2015)

Gross sales of vinyl and other merchandise at Ratboys' Lincoln Hall and Hideout concerts totaled more than $3,000—and I would know, because I volunteered to work the merch table for the band both nights. It seems pretty clear that tour sales would've quickly covered that initial $5,000 merch expense. When they're on the road, each member of the band gets paid $500 per week through the band's LLC, from a fund that's replenished by revenue from tickets and merchandise. When the tour's over, Ratboys tally up total sales, and whatever they've earned above and beyond their $250 goal per show, they split up equally. If that $250 per show totals more than the up-front cost of the merch, the surplus gets parked in the band's account.

Thankfully, nobody in Ratboys ordinarily depends on the band for all their income. With three months of touring canceled, they've left more than $20,000 in guarantees on the table. Neumann and Nuccio both hold full-time jobs that they can do remotely on the road. During the shelter-in-place order, Nuccio has continued to work as a graphic designer for Gatorade without leaving his apartment in Humboldt Park. Neumann, who lives with Steiner, Sagan, and two other roommates in a house in Elmwood Park, has been working from home as a political journalist for People.

"It's been exhausting," Neumann says. "But at the same time, this exact moment is when the whole field of journalism is so vital to how things work in this country and around the world. There's been this sense of duty, in that way."

Steiner and Sagan make money with side jobs when they're not touring, though touring is a better source of income for both of them. Steiner is ordinarily a brand ambassador for marketing firm Havas, but the pandemic means she can't work. Sagan delivers for Amazon and supplements his income with graphic-design commissions (he also designs Ratboys' merchandise).

On March 20, when Bandcamp waived its cut of sales for the day, Topshelf did the same for the entire weekend. Ratboys made almost $1,400 as a result, all of it from digital music. Immediately after the cancellation of their tours, Ratboys also pushed merch on social media, hoping to move some of the shirts and hats that they would've sold on the road. (Topshelf usually handles online merch sales, whether through Ratboys' website or through Bandcamp.) In the weeks since the band made their first posts on March 14, more than 200 orders have come in, a surge that's pushed Ratboys to a net profit of around $4,400 (including the money from the Chicago release shows). That's after covering around $1,100 in shipping expenses and the entire cost of that initial $5,000 order—but it's still nothing like what they would've made on the road.

A digital flyer for the third weekend of Ratboys Virtual Tour - ILLUSTRATION BY DAVE SAGAN
  • A digital flyer for the third weekend of Ratboys Virtual Tour
  • Illustration by Dave Sagan

Deprived of the outlet of touring, Steiner and Sagan started looking into different ways to reach fans directly. "We were getting so ready to go on tour, and that's how we express ourselves and reach out to our fans, by touring and playing live," says Sagan. "So we have to create some sort of opportunity out of this."

Like many other musicians stuck at home, Steiner participated in Instagram livestreams, but the band wanted more control of their presentation—they eventually settled on livestreaming service Twitch. Popular with video gamers, it gives fans an option to donate money by clicking a PayPal or Venmo link at the bottom on the screen.

"I was a little more familiar with Twitch than Julia," Sagan says. "I knew that it was a format where people can watch livestreams of games for hours on end, and there are channels that have built communities of fans."

"You have infinite options for the way you mike up instruments," Steiner says. "Ninety-nine percent of Instagram streams, the person is just using their phone, which is fine if you're just playing by yourself. Twitch allows us to use all of our gear and to have a setup rather than a handheld."

Steiner and Sagan downloaded Streamlabs Open Broadcast Software, then spent a day watching YouTube tutorials to learn how to use it. "Going into this, we knew absolutely nothing—we didn't even have a webcam," Steiner says. "We learned all about the back end of streaming stuff. It's very basic, but it's all new, and that's fun. It gives us a project to work on that we can immediately share with people."

  • Night four of Ratboys Virtual Tour, originally streamed from the moon on March 29

On March 26, the band premiered Ratboys Virtual Tour live on Twitch. So far they've hosted three weekends of the show, which combines talking segments and performances from Steiner and Sagan. They typically start on Thursday or Friday night, follow up with a Saturday-night show, and close with a Sunday-afternoon matinee. The show's eight-bit-style title card and graphics were all designed by Sagan, and Ratboys use a green screen so they can pretend to broadcast from a new far-flung location each time.

"The first episode, we were in Brazil, in Rio," Steiner says. "We did a lot of intro, telling people about the concept. It all felt . . . not self-conscious, but aware of how out of my element I was. It's nice—I don't feel that way very often when we're performing."

The show's tongue-in-cheek presentation is a natural fit for Steiner and Sagan—they've embraced the public-access-show vibe, right down to recording in their basement. Steiner generally stays on-screen, while Sagan bounces back and forth between joining her for performances and working behind the camera. Neumann pitches in as well, moderating the live text chat that runs alongside the stream.

"Sean started to moderate the chat, which was really nice because the people watching started to develop a lot of camaraderie and humor," Steiner says. "He was encouraging people to talk and have a good time."

"He's a real instigator," Sagan adds.

"With Twitch it's nice because you have direct contact with the listeners," says Steiner. "The three of us are pretty introverted, but we're humans—we want to have contact with people."

The intimacy of the Virtual Tour community has helped Steiner feel comfortable taking new risks. "I did a segment called 'Super New Songs' where I played really new songs, and stuff like that is really exciting and nerve-racking," she says. "It's a whole new level of feeling vulnerable—it's like jumping off a cliff into a large body of water. Things like that make you feel self-assured in what you're doing."

Whether the show streams from Stonehenge, from a Six Flags parking lot, or from the moon, fans keep coming back—sometimes Ratboys see the same people every night.

"There have definitely been familiar faces in the chat," Steiner says. "The cool thing is that a lot of those people are people we know from playing shows. It feels like a lot of the people we're playing for are the people we'd be playing for on tour—the cool thing is, now they can watch every day."

So far Ratboys have brought in more than $1,000 in PayPal and Venmo donations via Twitch. Though that's a small fraction of what they would've made on the road, they're also saving money: they don't have to pay for gas or lodgings, and it's cheaper to eat at home. They've also sold out a batch of 50 special-edition Virtual Tour shirts. Assuming things ever get back to normal, livestreaming has potential as a new way for Steiner and Sagan to earn income while Ratboys aren't on tour.

On the first night of Ratboys Virtual Tour, Julia Steiner transported herself to Rio de Janeiro. - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • On the first night of Ratboys Virtual Tour, Julia Steiner transported herself to Rio de Janeiro.
  • Courtesy the artist

"Once this whole pandemic is in the past and behind us, I'm wondering if all these virtual performances will be looked at as a novelty of the past because at the time it's all we had," Steiner says. "Or I wonder if there's going to be some sort of format or mode of connection that becomes ubiquitous that will . . . not replace traditional live-music performances, but supplement and become something that bands do when they're home."

Steiner doesn't want to look too far ahead, but she'd love to be able to rely more on her music and less on side jobs. "It would be very rewarding for us to be able to come home from a tour, take a few days off to reset, and then have a way to perform for people and still make a connection and potentially still have an income stream," she says. "That would make me feel so much more fulfilled as a musician—that would oddly enough make me feel even more fulfilled with choosing this as a career. You could go to work in your house. It could be an extra thing that could help us stay sharp and come up with new ideas."

It's obviously unclear when Ratboys will be able to return to the road to support Printer's Devil, but whenever they do, it'll still be their best record yet. They're using their time sheltering in place to create something new, and they're ready to share it any way they can. Ratboys post their Virtual Tour dates on Instagram and Twitter (on both platforms, their handle is @ratboysband). The show streams live on the band's Twitch channel, twitch.tv/watchratboys, and past episodes are archived on Twitch and YouTube.

"We're lucky that the record is out in the world and that we got to play the two release shows in Chicago—it was such an affirmation," Steiner says. "I didn't think at all that those would be our last two shows for a long time. But those were the best two shows to enter an involuntary worldwide hiatus."  v

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